History Of Fiji

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Melanesian and Polynesian Settlement

Melanesian and Polynesian peoples settled the Fijian islands some 3,500 years ago.

European Discovery (18th Century)

Dutch navigator Abel Tasman was the first European to discover the Fiji islands in 1643 when he sighted Vanua Levu and the North Taveuni group.

In 1804, the discovery of sandalwood on the southwestern coast of Vanua Levu led to an increase of Western trading ships visiting Fiji. A sandalwood rush began in the first few years but it dried up when supplies dropped between 1810 and 1814. By 1820, the traders returned for beche-de-mer or sea cucumber.

The European traders and missionaries, of whom the first arrived in 1830 from Tahiti, and the resulting disruption led to increasingly serious wars among the native Fijian confederacies. One Ratu (chief), Seru Epenisa Cakobau, gained limited control over the western islands by the 1850s, but it was not until June 1871 that he was able to unify all the tribes of Fiji under his authority, when he established his government at Levuka. The first session of the Legislative Assembly was opened in November of that year. Continuing unrest, however, led Cakobau and a convention of chiefs to cede Fiji unconditionally to the United Kingdom in October 1874, and a colonial Governor was appointed to maintain law and order. In 1877, the capital was moved from Levuka on Ovalau to Suva.

Colonial Fiji (1874-1970)

The pattern of colonialism in Fiji during the following century was similar to that in other British possessions: the pacification of the countryside, the spread of plantation agriculture, and the introduction of Indian indentured labor. Many traditional institutions, including the system of communal land ownership, were maintained. Under the colonial administration, many labourers were brought from India to work on sugar and cotton plantations. Descendants of these workers still form a large minority on the islands.

Fiji soldiers fought alongside the Allies in the Second World War, gaining a fine reputation in the Solomon Islands campaign. The United States and other allied countries maintained military installations in Fiji during the war, but Fiji itself never came under attack.

In the 1950s, Fiji's British colonial rulers began to establish embryonic institutions as a first step towards self government. This was welcomed by the Indo-Fijian community, which by that time had come to outnumber the native Fijian population. Fearing Indo-Fijian domination, many Fijian chiefs saw the benevolent dictatorship of the British as preferable to Indo-Fijian control, and resisted British moves towards autonomy. Nevertheless, a partly elected Legislative Council was established in 1954, with Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, a war hero, noted scholar, and contender for the vacant Cakobau throne, as its first List of Speakers of the House of Representatives. Although it had few of the powers of the modern Parliament, it brought native Fijians and Indo-Fijians into the official political structure for the first time, and fostered the beginning of a modern political culture in Fiji.

1964 saw the first step towards responsible government, with the introduction of the Member system. Specific portfolios were given to certain elected members of the Legislative Council. They did not constitute a Cabinet in the Westminster sense of the term, as they were officially advisers to the colonial Governor rather than ministers with executive authority, and were responsible only to the Governor, not to the legislature. Nevertheless, over the ensuing three year, the then Governor,Sir Francis Derek Jakeway, treated the Members more and more like ministers, to prepare them for the advent of responsible government.

A constitutional conference was held in London in July 1965, to discuss constitutional changes with a view to introducing responsible government. Indo-Fijians, led by A. D. Patel, demanded the immediate introduction of full self-government, with a fully elected legislature, to be elected by universal suffrage on a common voters' roll. These demands were vigorously rejected by the ethnic Fijian delegation, who still feared loss of control over natively owned land and resources should an Indo-Fijian dominated government come to power. The British made it clear, however, that they were determined to bring Fiji to self-government and eventual independence. Realizing that they had no choice, Fiji's chiefs decided to negotiate for the best deal they could get.

A series of compromises led to the establishment of a cabinet system of government in 1967, with Ratu Kamisese Mara as the first Chief Minister. Ongoing negotiations between Mara and Pate led to a second constitutional conference in London, in April 1970, at which Fiji's Legislative Council agreed on a compromise electoral formula and a timetable for independence as a fully sovereign and independent nation with the Commonwealth. The Legislative Council would be replaced with a bicameral Parliament, with a Senate dominated by Fijian chiefs and a popularly elected House of Representatives. Native Fijians and Indo-Fijians would each be allocated 22 seats in the 52 member House; a further 8 seats were reserved for "General electors" - Europeans, Chinese, Banaban Islanders, and other minorities. Approximately half of each ethnic group's representatives would be elected from closed ethnic electoral rolls, with the rest elected by universal suffrage. With this compromise, Fiji became independent on October 10, 1970.

Independent Fiji (1970 Onwards)

Post-independence politics came to be dominated by the Alliance Party of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. In the election of March 1977, the Indian-led opposition won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, but failed to form a government out of concern that indigenous Fijians would not accept Indo-Fijian leadership. In April 1987, a coalition led by Dr. Timoci Bavadra, an ethnic Fijian supported by the Indo-Fijian community, won the general election and formed Fiji's first majority Indian government, with Dr. Bavadra serving as Prime Minister. Less than a month later, Dr. Bavadra was forcibly removed from power during a military coup led by Lt. Col. Sitiveni Rabuka on May 14, 1987.

After a period of continued jockeying and negotiation, Rabuka staged a second coup on September 25, 1987. The military government revoked the constitution and declared Fiji a republic on October 10. This action, coupled with protests by the government of India, led to Fiji's expulsion from the Commonwealth and official nonrecognition of the Rabuka regime by foreign governments, including Australia and New Zealand. On December 6, Rabuka resigned as head of state and Governor-General Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau was appointed the first President of the Fijian Republic. Mara was reappointed Prime Minister, and Rabuka became Minister of Home Affairs.

The new government drafted a new constitution that went into force in July 1990. Under its terms, majorities were reserved for ethnic Fijians in both houses of the legislature. Previously, in 1989, the government had released statistical information showing that for the first time since 1946, ethnic Fijians were a majority of the population. More than 12,000 Indo-Fijians and other minorities had left the country in the two years following the 1987 coups. After resigning from the military, Rabuka became Prime Minister under the new constitution in 1993.

Ethnic tensions simmered in 1995-1996 over the renewal of Indo-Fijian land leases and political maneuvering surrounding the mandated 7-year review of the 1990 constitution. The Constitutional Review Commission produced a draft constitution which expanded the size of the legislature, lowered the proportion of seats reserved by ethnic groups, reserved the presidency for ethnic Fijians but opened the position of Prime Minister to citizens of all races. Prime Minister Rabuka and President Mara supported the proposal, while the nationalist indigenous Fijian parties opposed it. The reformed Constitution was approved in July 1997. Fiji was readmitted to the Commonwealth in October.

The first legislative elections held under the new constitution took place in May 1999. Rabuka's coalition was defeated by Indo-Fijian parties led by Mahendra Chaudhry, who became Fiji's first Indo-Fijian prime minister. One year later, in May 2000, Chaudhry and most other members of parliament were taken hostage in the House of Representatives by gunmen led by ethnic Fijian nationalist George Speight. The standoff dragged on for 8 weeks--during which time Chaudhry was removed from office by the then-president due to his incapacitation - before the Fijian military seized power and brokered a negotiated end to the situation, then arrested Speight when he violated its terms. Former banker Laisenia Qarase was named interim Prime Minister and head of the interim civilian government by the military and the Great Council of Chiefs in July. In 2001, after a decision to restore the suspended constitution, Qarase defeated Chaudhry in a hotly contested election.

See also: Fiji, Fiji coups of 1987, Fiji coup of 2000.